Did That Really Happen?*

Human memory is a funny thing. Sometimes it works very well, but not always. For instance, there’s the Mandela effect, which happens when a group of people remember something in a different way to what it really was. The members of that group reinforce the effect (e.g. ‘The car must have been blue. Everyone else says it was.’). So it can be difficult to get to the truth about something.

The Mandela effect turns up in crime fiction, and it’s not surprising that it does. It can be very useful for a criminal, for instance, if you can get people to be sure that you were nowhere near the scene of a crime when it was committed. It’s not easy to pull off, though, and certainly not easy to do well. But when it is, it can be very helpful to create misdirection.

In Christianna Brand’s Green For Danger, for instance, a postman named Joseph Higgins is taken to Heron Park Hospital, which has been converted for military (WW II) use. Higgins has a broken femur, which is serious, but not considered life-threatening. Still, he’ll need an operation. Sadly, he dies during the surgery. Inspector Cockrill of the Kent Police is called to the scene, presumably to ‘rubber stamp’ the theory that this was a tragic, but accidental death. But Higgins’ widow insists that he was murdered, and Cockrill can’t ignore what she says. So, he starts asking questions. Then, one of the nurses has too much to drink at a party, and blurts out that she knows Higgins was murdered, and knows how it was done. Later that night, she herself is killed. Now it’s clear that this was murder, and Cockrill begins investigating. In the end, he finds that nearly everyone in the operating room remembered things in a certain way, even though that’s not how they were.

Agatha Christie used this plot point in several of her stories. In A Murder is Announced, for instance, the residents of the village of Chipping Cleghorn are startled to see this announcement in their local paper:

‘A murder is announced and will take place on Friday, 29 October, at Little Paddocks, at 6.30 pm. Friends accept this, the only intimation.’

Letitia Blacklock, who owns Little Paddocks, is surprised at the announcement, but prepares for guests. Several of the villagers stop by later, thinking that this is all part of some game. Sure enough, at exactly 6:30, the lights go out and a gunman bursts in, demanding that everyone ‘stick ‘em up.’ A shot goes off and, when the lights go back on, everyone sees that Letitia has been wounded, but not seriously. The gunman, whose name turns out to be Rudi Scherz, is dead, and it looks as though he’s committed suicide. None of the people in the room shot him, and nobody came in behind him. But Inspector Craddock isn’t entirely satisfied with suicide as the explanation. Miss Marple happens to be staying at a local hotel, and Craddock has been advised to take her into his confidence. He and Miss Marple work together on the case, and discover that it was in someone’s interest for everyone in the room to believe something that wasn’t true.

Rex Stout’s Champagne For One is the story of Faith Usher, who lives at Grantham House, a home for single mothers and their babies. The place is funded by philanthropist Louise Robilotti. She takes an interest in the women who live there, and wants to see them settled into new lives. Once a year, she hosts a dinner dance to which she invites wealthy, eligible young men. She also invites a few select women from Grantham House, with the idea that they’ll become more accustomed to moving in ‘the right circles.’ This time, Faith has been invited, and she goes along to the event. Archie Goodwin is at the same event, standing in for a friend. So he’s there when Faith suddenly collapses and dies of what turns out to be poison. The official explanation is that she committed suicide. In fact, two of her friends had heard her threaten to do just that. And everyone swears that Faith was the only one who handled the champagne glass where the poison was found, so murder doesn’t seem possible. But Archie isn’t sure that this death was suicide, and he starts asking questions. It turns out that the Mandela effect plays an important role in what people remember about that evening.

There’s also Vaseem Khan’s The Strange Disappearance of a Bollywood Star. In it, former Inspector Ashwin Chopra of the Mumbai police has retired from the force due to his health, and is now a private investigator. Through a friend, he gets tickets to see Bollywood’s newest dreamboat, Vikram ‘Vicky’ Verma, perform in a show. The show makes use of the Mandela effect as Verma appears first in one place, then another, then another. Then, he disappears. His mother, a Bollywood legend herself, visits Chopra to ask him to help find her son. He finds that this case is more complicated than he’d thought it would be. He also finds that the Mandela effect has been very useful in covering up someone’s tracks.

There are plenty of other examples, too, of crime stories that make use of the Mandela effect (I’m thinking, for instance, of a few by Arthur Conan Doyle). When you ponder it, it’s enough to make you wonder whether we ever see what we think we see.

 

ps. The ‘photo shows two representations of the Starbucks logo. Do you remember which one’s the real one? That’s the Mandela effect…

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Kris Angelis’ Ghost (I’m Alive and Breathing).

Published by Margot Kinberg

I'm a mystery novelist and professor who loves to read, write, and talk about crime fiction.

8 thoughts on “Did That Really Happen?*

  1. It’s an intriguing effect, isn’t it, and more common than it’s given credit for. Memories of what was said at a meeting or who did what at a party, and so on. Once someone sounds definite enough, everyone else tends to accept it and it becomes part of their “memory” too. No wonder the police like to keep suspects separate till they’ve been questioned. Over here, witnesses in a trial aren’t allowed to mingle in the waiting room before they’re called, to avoid them chatting about their evidence and inadvertently influencing each other.

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    1. I actually like that idea a lot, FictionFan, of ensuring witnesses don’t get the chance to influence one another. I think it probably offers a better chance of getting to the truth. And you’re right about how common this effect is. The minute someone says something, everyone else is pulled to slip it into memory, whether it actually happened or not. Little wonder it’s so easy for people to be swayed. And it sure plays its roles in crime fiction.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Yes, fascinating topic, and I must reread Green For Danger. I have certainly had the experience of not being sure if I really remembered something or had only been told about it.

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    1. I think the topic’s really interesting, too, Christine. It’s certainly enough to make you stop and question your own thinking, isn’t it? And I know just what you mean about not being sure whether you remember something, were told about it, or (in my case, anyway) dreamt it. About Green For Danger? Definitely worth a re-read (I should do the same).

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  3. This post reminds me of the gorilla experiment, where a group is tossing around a ball and viewers are told to count how many times part of the group passes the ball. Viewers are so focused on that ball no one sees an enormous gorilla cross through the room.

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    1. Oh, yes! I’ve seen that one, Sue! And it is a great example of the way the Mandela effect can work. It’s fascinating how no-one sees what was plainly there…

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I always think eye-witness evidence should be treated with great caution. People on the whole really aren’t that observant, but can convince themselves that they are. I think in Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs everyone sees – and hears- things a little bit differently.

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    1. Absolutely, Moira! People don’t always see what they think they see. And that’s especially true if someone else says something about it (e.g. ‘The car I saw was green.’). Whether the car was or wasn’t green, it’s very tempting to say it was. And, yes, Five Little Pigs shows in such an effective way how this can be incorporated into the story. I’m also thinking of Dead Man’s Mirror, where everyone is sure of something they heard.

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